Credit: Grote Markt Groningen on Flickr under Creative Common 2.0
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Mayor Bill de Blasio ticked off such "fairness" victories as universal pre-Kindergarten for the state of New York; the city's Earned Sick Time Act, or paid sick leave; and a major affordable housing initiative for a city with the widest income gaps in the country.
Later in the session, when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took the podium in the windowless auditorium of the old U.S. Custom House here in the financial district, she frowned at the U.S. Senate's failure to pass a $10.10 federal minimum wage.
But she fed into the insurgent mood in the room by trumpeting a bill she is coauthoring that would transform the unpaid federal family leave law into a paid program funded by an independent trust fund that employees would pay into each week with a contribution that would cost them "less than a cup of coffee."
She also said that U.S. parents could be in line for help on childcare costs now that she is attracting bipartisan support from Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to a proposal to double the business expense tax credit that families can claim for childcare expenses.
On the heels of New York's universal pre-K law, Gillibrand was also bullish about creating a similar system for all American children since the developmental importance of this early education had become widely recognized.
The May 12 Regional Forum on Working Families New York, emceed by Latifa Lyles, director the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Labor Department, is one of several regional run ups to the administration's June 23 "White House Summit on Working Families," a major conference that the administration is hosting along with the Washington think tank Center for American Progress.
The New York conference gave Washington policymakers a chance to hear what's going on and succeeding for workers' rights in the region and to spread battle cries on income inequality.
One speaker talked about a "pot-hole" recovery. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez gave an invigorating talk about a "fraying opportunity quilt." An organizer for paid family leave in New Jersey noted that 100 percent of the economic recovery revenue in her state had been recouped by the top 5 percent. The standing-room-only audience responded favorably.
Valerie Jarrett Says It's Good Business
Valerie Jarrett, the president's senior advisor, joined many in emphasizing that the family-friendly policies at the heart of the gathering would benefit employers as well as the overall health of the economy.
Since President Barack Obama has been getting blocked in Congress over labor initiatives that would disproportionately benefit women--such as the $10.10 federal minimum wage and the Paycheck Fairness Act--Jarrett, who is also chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, said his administration is now working with mayors and state governments to lead by example.
"That will be the model to put pressure on Congress," Jarrett said in response to a question from the audience.
New York State was hailed as a national leader for passing the landmark universal pre-kindergarten law and the city was hailed for passing its sick leave law.
Gale Brewer, Manhattan borough president-- a friendly face in city government for those advocating for paid sick leave over the years--said more breakthroughs could be just ahead. Brewer noted that a paid family leave law--which would give workers time off for baby bonding and taking care of a sick relative--had passed the state assembly in March and stood a good chance of passing the Senate in June.
Advocates noted, however, that New Yorkers face drawbacks as well. The state's temporary disability insurance system, for instance--upon which a paid family leave benefit would piggy back--froze benefits some years ago at a cap of $170 a week. Donna Dolan, executive director of the NY Paid Leave Coalition, said that is far below the $742 a week paid by many other states.
Several speakers said sick leave and family leave programs are typically self-funded by employees who make modest contributions from their weekly paychecks.
If New York passes a paid leave law it would join three other states: California, Rhode Island and New Jersey.
While these states offer beacons they also offer lessons, such as the need to carry out publicity efforts so workers learn about the laws.
Ruth Milkman, a sociologist who has studied California's 2002 six-week paid family leave law, said research had shown that only "43 percent of Californians are aware it exists" because the law was passed with inadequate funding for an "outreach component." She said workers who are young, immigrant or low income are least likely to know they have a right to paid family leave.
Milkman said Australia's national paid family leave law offers a good model for how to publicize its provisions. The law requires clinicians to inform new parents about the law when they sign a birth certificate.
Analilia Mejia, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, talked about her work in passing paid sick-leave ordinances in cities such as Jersey City and Newark over the opposition of the state's leadership. Once a city passes a law and citizens are happy with it, she said, that creates pressure on nearby mayors to follow suit.
In a question and answer session--with Jarrett seated alone onstage and people lined up at microphones in the aisles--one woman said policies to support family leave lagged behind the corporate cultures that have formally adopted them. She said her husband was one of the few men in his company to ever take paid leave and it seemed like a prestige risk for him no matter what the human resources department might say.
In response Jarrett encouraged everyone in the audience to be brave and take advantage of paid family leave when it is available. "There's safety in numbers," she said. "That's how you begin changing the culture."
Corinna Barnard is editor of Women's eNews.
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